19th Century

Camilo Castelo Branco’s ‘Mysteries of Lisbon’ (1854): Chapter Four | [Trans. Stephen Basdeo]


Camilo Castelo Branco is one of Portugal’s most famous nineteenth century novelists and enjoys a posthumous fame in Portugal that is comparable to that enjoyed by Charles Dickens in England.

The house where Camilo Castelo Branco was born (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

Born in Lisbon in 1825 to a middle-class family, Branco attended briefly attended the University of Coimbra and studied medicine. His passion for literature, however, soon saw him eschew the life of a medical man and take up writing instead, and he went on to write over 50 novels and romances.

Branco’s politics seem hard to place, at least for English readers seeking to make a comparison between the politics of the Portuguese nation in the nineteenth century and Britain at the same time. Some English-language biographies have called Branco a ‘conservative and Catholic traditionalist’.

The church where Camilo Branco was baptised (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

Yet he also seems to have been something of a radical; he took part in the Revolution of Maria da Fonte in 1846 while his religious principles must have been, shall we say, ‘adaptable’. He was twice imprisoned for adultery, and he must have been something of a philanderer for in later life he went blind because he contracted syphilis.

As to the politics of Mysteries of Lisbon, what we can say is that the aristocracy do not come off well in it. So perhaps ‘anti-establishment’ is the best description we can apply to it.

Be that as it may, The Mysteries of Lisbon, published in three volumes in 1854, was his second novel, which is perhaps why he chose to capitalize on the European-wide mysterymania. The success of The Mysteries of Lisbon and the popularity of its principal character, Father Dinis, reached such great heights that Branco followed it up with a sequel titled Livro Negro de Padre Dinis, in which the priest moves through Lisbon’s high life and low life righting wrongs.

As a young novelist, his initial hesitation on writing a mysteries novel was revealed in the book’s preface, where he confessed that

If I was tempted to write about the hidden life of Lisbon, I wouldn’t be able to write two good chapters. What I know of Lisbon are the reliefs, which stand out in the pictures of all the populations, with the status of cities and towns. This is not worth the honour of the novel. If I had the resources of imagination, I would not come here to consume them in an inglorious task. And without these resources, it has always seemed impossible to me to write the mysteries of a land that has none, and, invented, nobody believes them. I was wrong. It is because I did not know Lisbon, or not able to calculate the power of a man’s imagination. I thought that the horizons of the fantastic world are set in the Pyrenees, and that one could not be a romanticist without having been born Cooper or Sue. I have never been saddened by this persuasion. I rather fancied I was born in the land of real men, because, I beg to believe, novels are a string of lies, from the famous Astrêa of Urfê, to Lamartine’s whining Jocelyn.[1]

Could anyone truly emulate Eugene Sue? Did Portugal even have enough mysteries to write about? Was he up to the task of writing about those mysteries? These are some of the questions with which Branco grappled. Yet in spite of his hesitation, Branco pressed on and, in the process, produced one of the greatest Portuguese-language novels of the nineteenth century.

The novel has never before been translated into English and what is presented below is the second chapter of Castelo Branco’s novel, translated by Stephen Basdeo. For those wishing to read the first instalment please click here; the second instalment is here; and the third chapter can be found by visiting here.

Camilo Branco (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

The Mysteries of Lisbon: Chapter Three

The secret of my birth seemed to darken more and more, even though it was easy for me to guess to which class I belonged. My mother remained an unfathomable secret to me. Her frenzied, desperate, and startled disposition seemed inexplicable to me! During the brief interview we had, I saw so many things that, remembering them later alone, I began to wonder if what I had seen was a fit of madness!

D. Antonia, to whom I revealed my childish suspicions, didn’t remove my doubts. Her language was always withdrawn and indecisive and she seemed to tremble at the utterance of the word ‘mother’; no matter how many times I pleaded with her, it did not help what I knew.

The priest did not speak to me at all. He listened to me with more affability, but it was always the same cold face, and the same master’s austerity.

Meditation absorbed my hours of study—yet the priest did not want me to meditate. He forced me into long and dry scientific lessons in an attempt to distract me from the sterile meditations of my enigmatic life.

Months passed. I did not see my mother. Nor did I have anyone to speak to me about her.

I suffered a painful longing for that woman. The image of her which I had first seen was reflected in my heart. The echo of her words sounded in my dreams. I felt the warmth of her kisses on my cheeks and the strange impression of her tears.

This idealism was converted into deep love. I knew in my heart that I was that woman’s son because my soul’s prophetic voice told me—my external senses did not need to confirm what the inner workings of my heart told me.

But not knowing that I was definitely her son, it seemed that my passion became akin to that of a lover. If I was unable to call her ‘mother’ I reasoned that should call her ‘wife’ (I did not know then that these two sentiments fulfil the most imperious, and much different, ideas of love; but I guessed them as I know them today, after twenty years of experience have made me know them. There are truths in the world, which are seen, in all their light, either by the pure eyes of candour, or by those of experience).

My master ordered me one day to dress for a walk with him. This order surprised me because it was a school day. No one had ever paid such attention to me on a Sunday!

We went out on a long walk. The priest remained silent as we crossed most of the city. I noticed a sign on an almost deserted street which read CAMPOLIDE. We walked on still a long way. We lost sight of Lisbon for some time while we walked down old country roads, leaning against the wall of a farm. At the end of that wall was a gloomy, sad palace hidden among the beeches, weeping trees, and cypresses.

Beside this palace the terrace formed a curve by a stone bench. The priest sat down and told me to sit there.

‘Do you like this place, João?’ asked the priest.

‘I like it very much; I could live here.’

‘Why do you like it here?’

‘I don’t know why. I just find it so sad…’

And the priest smiled. All windows but one were closed. It was as if the house had no inhabitants. Only one window remained open and still that was partially shuttered.

I noticed that the priest looked at the window a lot. I accompanied him in this curiosity many times.

We had been there for over an hour when, through the window pane, I caught sight of a figure. The priest gave him a light salute. I was then instructed to stand with my cap in my hand.

The person at the window made a sign. The priest told me to sit down and cover up.

The figure dropped the fold of the cape that hid half his face. It was my mother!

As soon as I received this surprise, I could not contain myself.

‘It’s my mother!’ I said with a start.

The master told me to be quiet.

I could not take my eyes off her face. She waved at me, smiled, wiped her eyes, and made I know not what signs to the priest, to which he replied in the affirmative.

My mother disappeared from the window at various moments, as if trying to hold on to some surprise. She seemed more cadaverous. The stains of suffering were around her blackened eyes, as though her flesh had been macerated there.

I asked the priest to let me go inside. The priest, smiling, signalled my request to her. I saw her smiling too; but what deadly sadness and misfortune lingered in that smile!

A few moments passed. My mother said goodbye and turned away and hastily.

My master took off his hat, made as if to wipe the sweat from his brow, and told me not to look up at the window.

But I could not obey him. The window pane, which my mother had not dared to open, was suddenly flung open with a bang.

I started violently. A man of frightful figure looked at us with a choleric eye. The priest looked directly at him for a moment without moving so much as a muscle, simulating the best feigned indifference I ever saw. He did not forbid me to look at that man—perhaps he thought we would be less suspicious.

His words to the priest seemed increased in intensity. What was it in the sight of that man which instilled such terror in me? I was dying to get out of there when he said in an imperious voice, with a frown on his forehead, ‘Is there anything you want?’

‘No, sir,’ said the priest. ‘What we wanted was to rest for a moment; but if we are troublesome, we shall retire.’

The master stood up. The man closed the window and withdrew.

We went back the way we came.

On that evening I had the following conversation with the priest:

‘I can tell you little at present about your birth….’

‘But what little is that?’

‘You know that that lady is your mother?’

‘Yes, but who is that lady?’

‘You have no need to know, nor to ask. She is a person who gave you your existence and education.’

‘And was my father that man who appeared in the window?’

‘No. Your father is no longer alive.’

‘And that man is not my relative?’

‘He is not your relative. He is your mother’s husband.’

‘My mother’s husband … and he is my enemy?’

‘Why do you ask if he is your enemy?’

‘Because he knows not that I exist.’

‘You know you exist … but … don’t ask me any more questions—I won’t answer you. Sooner than t I would like, you will know everything.’

This conversation was interrupted by Dona Antonia, who entered my chamber and handed her brother a letter.

The priest read it. He meditated on it. His mind seemed to struggle with opposing desires and finally, withdrawing, said to me: ‘I want to give you some traces of your mother’s bitter life. They are here written by her … Read this letter and ask God to have mercy on the one who wrote it.

The letter, written in pencil, proceeded in this manner:

The Count was suspicious. He told me how upset you were when he saw you. He wanted to extract the secret of who you were from me. He interrogated me at the point of a dagger. I saw his eyes injected with blood, and I thought he was going to kill me. I offered myself, as always, to the sacrifice, begging him on my knees to die. He spat in my face when I was in this humble posture, He came out as if furious in search of you; it was too late, fortunately, to find you. He ordered the servants to make inquiries after you. It will be a wasted diligence. Do not go out with my child again. It was imprudent of me. It seems to me I will be deprived of light for another eight years! God take me out of this world—for pity’s sake! I am tempted to kill this executioner. Help me to die with resignation. May two lines from you, or from my son, be sweet to me at my final hour, and may death be my reward—my crown—from this long martyrdom! Goodbye. Embrace my son, will you? Goodbye.


Grief overcame my spirit and I became wretched! I fell on my knees. With my hands raised to heaven I asked God to show compassion on my mother.


[1] Camilo Castelo Branco, ‘Provenções’, in Mistérios de Lisboa, ed. by Alexandre Cabral, 3 vols, Obras Escholhidas de Camilo Castelo Branco (Lisbon: Circulo de Leitores, 1999), I, p. 9. Se eu me visse assaltado pela tentaçao de escrever a vida oculta de Lisboa, não era capaz de alinhavar dois capitulos com jeito. O que eu conheço de Lisboa são os relevos, que se destacam nos quadros de todas as populações, com foro de cidades e de vilas. Isso não vale a honra do romance. Recursos de imaginação, se os eu tivera, não viria consumi-los aqui numa tarefa inglória. E, sem esses recursos, pereceu-me sempre impossivel escrever os misterios de uma terra que não tem nenhuns, e, inventados, ninguém os crê. Enganei-me. É que não conhecia Lisboa, ou não capaz de calcular a potência da imaginação de um homem. Cuidei que os horizontes do mundo fantástico se fevacham nos Pirenéus, e que não podia ser-se romanticista sem ter nascido Cooper ou Sue. Nunca me contristei desta persuasão. Antes eu gostava gustava muito de ter nascido na terra dos homens verdadeiros, porque, peço me acreditem, que os romances são uma enfiada de mentiras, desde a famosa Astrêa de Urfê, até ao choramingas Jocelyn de Lamartine’. Translation my own.

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